Global Climate Change: Impossible Goals?

Global Climate Change: Impossible Goals?

Back in the ground

‘Negative emissions’ a controversial solution

Given the overwhelming and seemingly almost uncontrollable amount of greenhouse gases pouring into the world’s atmosphere, it is starting to seem impossible to meet the 1.5C rise limit in temperatures by 2030.

Governments may have to turn to carbon capture – so-called “negative emissions” – in the effort to control temperatures, a solution that critics say has more problems than answers.

Last year, 165 countries that signed the Paris climate agreement agreed to be more ambitious in the pact’s targets. One of the victories of the 21st annual session of the United Nations Conference of Parties in Paris was the inclusion of the 1.5C target. The final agreement’s objective was to “hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels.”

In previous years, 1.5 was advocated largely by the small island countries most vulnerable to climate change but was barely talked about in the negotiations and was considered “unrealistic.” The goal, enshrined in the Copenhagen Accord, has always been 2C.  Last year however, a 1.5 campaign was launched during the last Bonn intersessional talks in October, just before the Paris conference, and gained momentum during the December meeting.

“1.5 to stay alive!” was the rallying call of the vulnerable countries. They were heard by 106 countries which, to the surprise of most, agreed to including the 1.5 target in the agreement. 

Climate pledges not in line with 1.5 target

Current pledges, also called the Nationally Determined Contribution, are currently not enough to hold global warming at 1.5 degrees. According to Climate Analytics, the current level of countries’ ambition is not compatible with a 1.5 or even a 2C pathway. Current commitments will lead to a 2.7 or sub-3C of warming. 

Now the question is, how do we get to 1.5? Is it still possible? What are its implications?

Negative emissions take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. One example of this is Bioenergy Carbon and Capture Storage (BECCS). Negative emission technologies are included in many climate models of pathways on how to get to the below-2C target.

Climate Analytics, a non-profit climate science and policy institute based in Berlin and led by scientist Bill Hare, believes that reaching 1.5 degrees “will require negative emissions technology to compensate for the insufficient emissions reductions realized to date.”

“If we are going to get to 1.5 degrees, we are going to need to have negative emissions. Unfortunately, there’s no way out of it now. The fact that there had been so little action in the last 20 years means that to get to even 2 degrees, we have got to have negative emissions. It’s just a matter of how much. It’s not a matter you can discuss about, unfortunately,” said Bill Hare in an interview.

According to Hare, the problem is that in order to get to 1.5 or 2 degrees, there will still be a need for 500 gigatonnes of carbon storage underground even after governments have done a lot of ecological restoration.

Hare shares his concerns over arguments presented by organizations that do not believe in negative emissions due to its implications. His concern as a scientist, he said, is that people need to work with the fact, not with rhetoric or ideology, and discuss the real problems that arise.

“In that spirit, you need to look at how you deal with that, not say that you don’t believe it — that’s not rational or scientific and it’s about an ideological position rather than confronting the problems that we have to deal with,” he added.